Monday, November 12, 2018

Acts 28:11-31 "The Last Word of the Book of Acts"


As we come to the final verses of the Acts of the Apostles we will find Paul finally in Rome. All this began in Acts 21:27ff when he was arrested in the temple in Jerusalem on charges of undermining the law and the temple and Caesar (25:8). He is saved from angry mob justice by a  Roman cohort in Jerusalem, and this begins a process  whereby  Paul is sent from Felix the Roman governor to  Festus another governor, under whom he makes this appeal to appear  before Caesar (25:11)  in Rome.

V. 11 Last time we saw him in Malta, the island where they ran aground in the shipwreck. Here   Paul and his entourage   stayed approximately from mid-November to about mid-February, whilst waiting out the storm season.  Eventually they had found a ship from Alexandria  that had  wintered in the island.  The ship had the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux, patron deities of sailors on her bow.  Luke probably records this intentionally. The pagan  sailors  would have attributed their rescue from the shipwreck  to these twin gods, but it is clear that these were not  the ones in whom Paul had put his trust. In 27:23-25 Paul has made it clear  who  his Protector and Deliverer is.

V. 12  After a  90 kilometre  journey north, the ship  lands in  Syracuse  the provincial capital city of Sicily,  at the tip of the boot of the Italian peninsula.  Here they stayed for three days. 

V. 13 From there they sailed on to Rhegium in southern Italy ,  another 110 kilometres further and from there,  with the south wind in their sails  they  arrived in Puteoli 2 days later,  and 325 km’s further. In Puteoli  they found some brothers and stayed with them for 7 days.  Isn’t this worldwide network of support and encouragement amazing?  This must have meant  that  the centurion  and guard must have given his consent.

v. 14 And now he is in Rome, through many dangers toils and snares ... ship wreck, snakebite  … This marks the  fulfilment of God's promise to Paul (23:11; 27:24).

v. 15   The way he got to  Rome from  Puteoli ( a 210 km  journey) there was on land. First  Paul made his way  about 30 kilometres  up the Via Compana to its intersection with the Via Appia, or the Appian Way.  The Forum of Appius  is about 70 km’s from Rome   and  some 16 km’s  further  was the place called the  three Taverns. At both these places Christian brothers from Rome, who had heard that Paul and the others were coming, came to meet him.  At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and took courage. Why?  This show of support was surely most encouraging  to Paul. He knows that he is in God’s hands, but it is also good to know that there are caring Christian  people, visible tokens  of the love of God. Furthermore Paul knew that the end of the long journey was now in  view. They  had met some significant obstacles.  So, when  with God's help, we achieve divinely appointed goals, the proper response is thankfulness to God.

v. 16  When Paul entered Rome  he  is  put under house arrest and  guarded by a soldier. At this stage he has considerable liberties.

28:17-22 Encounter with Jewish Leaders

v. 17 Three days after his  arrival, and  in accordance with his "to the Jew first" strategy, he called together the local  leaders of the Jews[1] .  It is estimated  that the Jewish community at Rome numbered  some fourty  to fifty thousand people, most  of them being Roman  slaves and freedmen. The names of ten to thirteen synagogues have been recovered from inscriptions in the catacombs[2]As Paul began to speak he addressed his hearers as brothers. He saw each new audience of Jews as potentially containing some of the elect remnant who would hear and respond to the gospel.  This brief address to them contains four statements:

(i)               He is innocent before the Jews (28:17b, 19c). They can bring no sustainable charges against him, and he has none to bring against them. The Jews may have charged that Paul is working against the Jewish people and their customs, but the charges aren’t true because Paul was always working for his Jewish brothers (Rom 10:1). He always respected Jewish customs (21:23-24, 26).

(ii)              He is a prisoner of the Roman government and there are reasons for this (28:17c, 19b).  He was handed over[3] as a prisoner from Jerusalem to the Romans. He was forced to appeal to Caesar (v. 19; also see 25:11).

(iii)            Romans and Jews had  different opinions  toward Paul (28:18a, 19a). The Romans wanted  to release him. The Jews objected to Paul's release (25:3, 7). This situation is very similar to Jesus. 

(iv)             He was  not guilty of any crime deserving death (28:18). Paul is innocent before the Roman state (23:28-29; 25:25; 26:31-32).

V. 20  In this  verse Paul gets to the point.  He has been preparing the ground for the question, "so if you are innocent , then why are you here ?  And Paul answers, "Why am I here?  I am here because of the hope of Israel ...that is why  I am wearing this chain."  The Jewish leaders respond to Paul's statements by saying that they have heard nothing bad about Paul, whether by letter or by word of mouth.  What they do know however,  is that  this sect (Gr. haireseōs) which Paul represents  is spoken against everywhere (v.22). Clearly, Christianity was not viewed positively by them.  

28:23-28 Explaining the Gospel to the Jews 

v.23. The Jewish leaders  want to give Paul a fair hearing and so they agree upon a day. They arrive in force at his rented  lodgings (vv. 16, 30).  He expounded to them from morning till evening,  testifying  (Gk  diamartyromenos[4]-  23:11)  to  the kingdom of God and trying to convince them  about Jesus, both from  the law of Moses and the prophets. All this is just another way of saying that he was preaching the gospel to them with great intensity.

v. 24.The response to the message was mixed: some were convinced… but others disbelieved ( see this pattern also in 13:44-45; 14:1-2; 17:4-5).

vv. 25-27   Now to interpret this mixed response, Paul quotes from the Old Testament (Isa. 6:9-10). Paul takes the Jewish  Scriptures, given in a particular setting in Isaiah’s day, and he does not hesitate to apply this  to  these Romans  Jews. Isaiah in his day  spoke about  what happens when people hear  saving truth without appropriating it.  They  would  be  ever hearing but never understanding (compare the use of parables in  Lk. 8:10 with Isa. 6:9). Isaiah attributes this lack of understanding  to a hard heart, deaf ears , blind eyes. There is nothing defective or unclear in the message. The defect is  found in the audience's sinfulness. This sickness affects the heart (i.e. the willingness to be willing to hear and see) and the mind (whose  access is barred by faulty  hearing and seeing).     If they would but see with open  eyes, hear with open  ears,  and respond with  soft hearts, they would turn (repent)  and  God would heal them. The truth is  that  human sinfulness has made us so hard , so blind and so deaf that no –one would be saved. It takes a miracle, it take intervention from  God  to cure this condition.  

v. 28.  The gentiles will listen …. This is the third time Paul speaks of Jewish rejection and Gentile reception (13:46; 18:6).

28:30-31 The  Gospel is preached  for two years to all who wanted to hear  

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him, proclaiming the kingdom of God  and teaching about the  Lord Jesus Christ… This final summary statement  brings to conclusion the thesis  of the  Book of  Acts, in Acts 1:8,  that  ‘ you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria  and to the ends of the earth.  This also corresponds with Luke’s closing statements by Jesus  in   Luke 24:47.  That "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in [Jesus'] name to all nations" (Note in  Lk.24:45, Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures)  
And so we read that Paul was able to speak with boldness and "without hindrance" (akōlutōs).   This word points to the work of  a sovereign God whose saving plan, who  determined it that the gospel will be preached in Jesus' name to all nations, will not be hindered.

 SUMMARY

The Book of Acts traces the birth and phenomenal  growth of the church. At the beginning there were only a few hundred believers in Jesus Christ, and at the end, we can scarcely guess how many. Everywhere,  men, women and children  came  to believe in the Lord Jesus  Christ,  in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and  among the gentile nations, which is where this book now abruptly ends.
The gospel advances despite much opposition. Persecution, beatings, death,  imprisonment, shipwrecks, snakebites all threatened the spread of the Gospel. So, too, did sinfulness and faithlessness within the church (e.g. Acts 5:1-11). However, in spite of all the opposition and difficulties Luke says that the Gospel  spread  without hindrance. 
This is a principle of timeless application. The Gospel  spread  in an unhindered fashion in the early church (cf. 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20),  and  it does so now. The gospel did not cease to be proclaimed  when Paul was martyred. The future of the gospel  was not in Paul’s hands , but in God’s hands, and it is so   until this very day.  No-one can  stop the progress and ultimate victory of the gospel.
So, what does the Lord require of you, as you continue with  Acts 29, after the Gospel centered fashion  of the book of Acts, following in the footsteps of Paul ?

1.     Share the Gospel clearly and often.
2.     Do not worry too much about the outcome. You cannot save a soul. God alone can do that. You do not have to feel responsible for the salvation or damnation of anyone.
3.     Speak when it is given to you to do so, and do it  with all your heart and with a heart that loves the Lord Jesus  as well as the soul before you.
4.     Don't bully people into decisions. Let the Holy Spirit work.
5.     Be creative. Don’t  feel that you must share the Gospel in exactly the same way each time. Make sure that you know your Bible so that the Holy Spirit can bring the stored up  Word in you  to memory.  6.     Don't get into arguments. You don’t have to win an argument. You are already on the winning side. The Gospel is unhindered. So speak with confidence, urgency and love for this lost soul  before you. 
7.     Avoid developing an Elijah complex. You are not alone in  this gospel  work.

Regardless of how things may seem, the good news of the Gospel is, was, and always will be without hindrance. Jesus is building His church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 



[1]  See 13:5, 14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4; 19:8
[2] http://www.catacombsociety.org/jewish-congregations-in-late-ancient-rome/
[3] Gk paradidomi
[4] emphasizes witnessing done with a high level of self-involvement, i.e. with strong personal interest motivating it. https://biblehub.com/greek/1263.htm

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Genesis 23 "Lessons from the Death of Sarah"


About 17 years have passed between Chapters 22 and 23, the sacrifice of Isaac and the death of his mother, Sarah. In Genesis 22, Abraham reached the pinnacle of faith and obedience as he takes Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him there. Now in Genesis 23, Abraham descends into the depths as we watch him  grieving, saying goodbye to his wife, Sarah. 
Chapter 23 is about the death of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, but it contains much more than the death of Sarah. Here we learn lessons about grieving, about  true values.  We learn about our ultimate home.  

23:1 The death of Sarah. Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age at death is recorded. Another interesting   fact is that nowhere in the Bible are we told to look to Mary the mother of Jesus as an example of a godly woman (and doubtless she was), but  twice we are  told to look to Sarah as such an example (Isa. 51:1-2 ; 1 Pet. 3:3-6).

23:2 Abraham grieves over Sarah. And Sarah died in Kirjath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. Sarah was 127 years old when she died. Isaac, her son Isaac would now be thirty-seven. She died before she would see her son Isaac married, but   God was gracious to allow her to see her son to be a man.

Abraham mourned and wept over Sarah. What a hard day it is when a man must bury his wife- his best friend!  Grief is a good and proper, God given emotion to man. Every emotion in proper proportion  and  measure   (e.g. joy, sorrow and even anger) is good. At the grave of Lazarus Jesus wept (Jn. 11:35) and it was commented upon by the Jews, ‘See how he loved him’ (Jn. 11:36).

But Christians ought never to be overtaken by   their grief to the point in which they become emotionally crippled and hopeless, unable to function.  There is a distinction between grief and despair. Grief is proper and good according to the Scriptures. It is important to grieve and to shed tears. There is, after all a real sense of loss. The death of Sarah is a very hard experience for Abraham. But that sense of loss must not lead to despair. Despair is grief without hope.   Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians makes this point,   But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). The death  of a loved one can be a very soul- crippling  experience  and it can be  a distracting factor to our  living,   and some  people never properly  recover from grieving. They grieve without hope. Abraham does not. In Chapter 25 we shall see that Abraham will remarry, and Keturah his second wife will bear him 6 more sons (25:2).  Remarriage was no betrayal of Sarah. Sarah would always have a special place in Abraham’s heart.

So then, as was customary in those days, and being nomadic people, the body of Sarah was placed in a tent, and Abraham is with her and it is here that we find him weeping. The memories that flood his mind are many.  He probably remembers when they were first married, when they were first called by God to leave their family in Ur and go to an unknown land- the land of promise. Sarah had shared everything with him - his uncertainty, his hardships, the unsettled life and the sinful decisions. He remembers how Sarah cried bitter tears over her barrenness. In her desperation to give him a son, she even offered her servant girl Hagar to him and Ishmael was born. He remembered too, how finally Isaac, the son of promise was born. And now she is dead. We can scarcely imagine the impact of Sarah's death upon Abraham. They had had been married, perhaps, for well more than a 100 years. And now Abraham must carry on this life without her.

23: 3-9 Abraham buys land for Sarah’s burial from the Hittites. I am a foreigner and a foreigner among you”.  Abraham was a foreigner among these Hittites, but that was not what made him feel as a foreigner. Hebrews 11:8-10 helps us to understand.  He wasn’t ultimately looking for a piece of earthly real estate. “He was look for that city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”  He recognized his real home and abiding was not here on earth.  David knew this truth (1 Chron. 29:14 and   Ps. 39:12).  And that is one of the great reasons why Abraham did not despair when Sarah died, and why David did not despair when his little son died (2 Sam. 12:15-23). Their hearts were not in the hands of death and grief. Their hearts were in God’s hands.  

The commentator Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse  illustrates this  in a moving story.[1]  He told of a young woman whose husband had been killed in action during the war. When the telegram came, she read it and then said to her mother. "Mother, I am going up to my room and please don't disturb me." Her mother called the father at work and told him what had happened. He came home and immediately went up to the room. He opened the door quietly.  He saw her kneeling beside her bed. The telegram was spread open on the bed before her as she was bowed over it. And as he stood there,he heard her say, "Oh, my heavenly Father, Oh, my Father, my heavenly Father." Without a word the man turned around and went back down the stairs and said to his wife, "She is in better hands than mine."

And now Abraham asks for a place to bury her. “Give me property for a burial place among you” (23:4). He had a particular place in mind – the cave of Machpelah.  It was situated on the land owned by Ephron the son of Zohar. Abraham had earlier lived in this area and here he had built an altar to God (Gen. 13:18).

23: 10-16 Abraham negotiates with Ephron the Hittite for the land of Sarah’s tomb. This is one of few places in the land of Palestine that has been authenticated today. One can visit the cave of Machpelah- the cave of the Patriarchs.[2] This is also where Isaac and Ishmael would bury Abraham (Gen 25:9). Isaac and Rebekah were both buried here (Gen. 49:31). Jacob buried Leah here (Gen.49:31); Joseph buried Jacob here (Gen. 50:13). Joseph did not want to be buried in Egypt. He wanted his bones brought back to the land of Canaan and buried with the patriarchs (Gen. 50:25). It is located in the old city of Hebron. A  mosque has been built above it.

Ephron says to Abraham, I give you the field and the cave”.  He did not mean it literally. This was apparently  a typical way of negotiating  in ancient cultures.  First, the seller offered to give the item free of charge – confident that the buyer would refuse the ceremonial offer. When the buyer refused ‘the gift’, the seller would suggest a price, which in our case he claimed was modest but was really very high. Abraham paid 400 shekels (23:15). By comparison, Jeremiah paid 17 shekels for a field (Jer. 32:9) and  David paid only 50 shekels to buy a site on which the temple  in  Jerusalem  was built. (2 Sam 24:24). This was a rip off!

23:17-20 Abraham buys the field and buries Sarah. The text emphasizes that this property was Abraham’s land by title deed.  It was the only piece of land Abraham ever owned, in the land promised to him. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a famous Russian writer of short stories and novels. He wrote a short story entitled, “How much land does a man need?” 

The central character of this story is a man called Pahom, a greedy man. He complains that he does not own enough land. He says: "if I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the devil himself". Unbeknown to him, Satan is sitting behind the stove and listening. Satan accepts his challenge and also tells him that he would give Pahom more land, and then to snatch everything from him.   I will omit a lot of detail of Pahom’s greedy pursuit of land, but at the end of the story he is introduced to a family, the Bashkirs, who own a huge amount of land.  Their offer is very unusual.  For a sum of one thousand roubles, Pahom can walk around as large an area as he wants. He starts early in the morning, marking his route with a spade along the way. If he reaches his starting point by sunset that day, the entire area of the land which he has marked will be his, but if he does not reach his starting point as the sun goes down, he will lose his money and receive no land. He is delighted as he believes that he has hit upon the bargain of a lifetime. The day comes. He stays out as late as possible, marking out land until just before the sun sets. Towards the end of the day, he realizes that he is far from the starting point and runs back as fast as he can to the waiting land owners, the Bashkirs. He finally arrives at the starting point just as the sun sets, but he has utterly exhausted himself from the run, and as he arrives Pahom drops dead.
His servant buries him in an ordinary grave only six feet long and three feet wide. This answers the question posed in the title of the story, “How much land does a man need?”  

From Abraham’s perspective this was the only land that he needed on this earth to bury the mortal remains of his loved ones. The heavenly city was waiting. When you die the only piece of property you will own will be a plot in a cemetery. Everything else will belong to someone else.
There is a lesson  to be learned about the  request for a burial place.  Sarah’s soul is gone, but her body is here, and it is precious to the Lord and to Abraham.  The body- the remains ought to be precious to us too. When Mary discovered that the tomb in which Jesus was laid is empty, she doesn’t say, “They have taken away Jesus’ body and I don’t know where it is.” Her Lord had been taken away. Where was he? Abraham was conscious that this was the body of Sarah and it needed to be shown respect and love. This body must have a proper resting place, and a loving burial.   Burial plans ought to matter to us. Where his dear wife was to be buried was more than a matter of sentiment. Burying his wife was also a statement of faith. Have you considered what is going to happen to your body after your death? Where are you going to be buried? Have you drawn up a will? Do your loved ones know of your wishes? Have you thought of what you want said or sung at your funeral service? Who do you want to take that service?

CONCLUSION:
The big point behind  this story is that  Sarah dies in the land of Canaan, the land of promise, a reminder of the ultimate promise as found in Hebrews 11:13,  All these died in faith without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” This chapter is about persevering to the end, trusting in God and his promises,  trusting in  Him  even when our dreams  do not materialize in this world. 

Sarah died. There is escape from death.   In fact, the whole world is a hospital and every person in it is a terminal patient.  The question is ' how will you die?' Sarah  died in  hope and in faith,  even  though  she never   never saw her son’s bride; she never saw her offspring in this life; she never saw her grandchildren . She  never saw  her ultimate offspring – the Messiah in this life.

But  this we know, that when she died, when she left this body, her faith turned to sight, and whatever was unclear  for her on earth is now clear in heaven, as she has become a  citizen of  the eternal city.  

From that perspective you and I stand exactly where Sarah and Abraham stood 4000 years ago. We have not yet received the fulfillment of all God has promised. But we have the down payment, the inner assurance of the Holy Spirit, based upon  the promises in the Word. 
We will die, but the promises of God  continue  and await  the  fulfillment when we get to our heavenly Canaan. He who has been with us so far will not leave us when we depart from this world.
Thank God then  for these lessons  and encouragement from the life of Sarah. 



[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_of_the_Patriarchs The Cave of the Patriarchs, also called the Cave of Machpelah (Hebrew: מערת המכפלה,  About this sound Me'arat ha-Makhpela  trans. "cave of the double tombs") and known by Muslims as the Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque , located in the heart of the old city of Hebron (Al-Khalil) in the Hebron Hills.[Gen. 23:17-19][Gen. 50:13]  The site of the Cave of the Patriarchs is located beneath a Saladin-era mosque, which had been converted from a large rectangular Herodian-era Judean structure.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Acts 28:1-10 "Should we expect Signs and Wonders today?"


Following the shipwreck in Acts 27, Paul and the passengers discover that they are now on the island of Malta. Malta isn’t a big island (316 sq.km).  It is located in the Mediterranean, not far from the island of Sicily, located ‘on the toe’ of the boot of Italy.  It is thought that Malta has been inhabited since approximately 5900 BC. Its location in the centre of the Mediterranean has historically given it great strategic importance with a succession of powers having contested and ruled the islands, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, French, and the  British.[1]

The fact that they came safely ashore (all 276  survived this – cf. 27:37—28:1) is a miracle. They were helped by the native people of Malta. The Greek word for native here is “barbaroi”, from which we get our word “barbarian”.  The Greeks used the word for anyone who didn’t speak Greek. Luke says that these native people ‘showed us unusual kindness for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and  is was cold’ (28:2).

Three miraculous things happen in this passage: 
1.     Paul  and the  passengers all escape certain death  after being  shipwrecked
2.     Paul  escapes a potentially fatal snakebite
3.     Paul  heals many

Because of these things, I wanted to ask a question. Should we expect signs and wonders in our own day? This is not an easy question, and there is no easy answer. Let’s try though, but before we do that,let us consider  the  story as it unfolds at face value.

Paul escapes the fatal consequence of a poisonous snake bite (28: 3-6)

In the process of lighting this fire, Paul also assists and as he takes a supposed stick, he   actually grabs a viper –evidently a poisonous  viper. I checked the internet. There are four species of snakes found in Malta today, but none of them are poisonous.  But this was 2000 years ago.  It is possible that this species could have become extinct.  There are islands in the Mediterranean that were once known to have been infested with such venomous snakes[2].  What is significant in our text is that the islanders knew this kind of snake. It’s so poisonous that they expected Paul to swell up and die.  And what is even more interesting is that they were assuming that this was happening to him because he had done something bad. This is the kind of thinking that many people engage in today. Why does this happen to him? He must be a murderer or something of the kind. The gods will not allow him to get away with this.  But they are equally capable of turning it around, so that when Paul doesn’t die from this snake bite, they ‘changed their minds and said that he was a god’ (28:6). This is not the first time this has happened to Paul. In 14:11, in Lystra, Barnabas and Paul were proclaimed gods after healing a crippled man, and very soon after this they stoned Paul. This is the fickleness of the human heart.  The Hallelujah’s of today very quickly become the ‘crucify him’ of tomorrow.  

Paul heals Publius’ father and many  people of  the island (28:7-10)

Publius[3] the prōtos, the “chief official” of the island is most likely the Governor of Malta. We are not told why he offers them hospitality.  Maybe he offers hospitality to Julius, the centurion in charge of Paul and his group, an officer of the elite Imperial Regiment (27:1), and so has to take care of his prisoners as well. Maybe Paul is known to be some kind of celebrity. Maybe his fame has preceded him.   Whatever the case may be, while Paul is staying with Publius his celebrity status will increase. He discovers that Publius’ father is ill with “fever and dysentery”.  Some commentators believe this to be the  “Malta Fever”. Apparently, this disease was common in Malta, Gibraltar and other Mediterranean islands. A micro-organism, which was finally traced in 1887 to the milk of Maltese goats, caused the problem. It causes a fever which can last for an average of four months, and can persist up to three years.[4]  Whatever the case may be, when Paul found out, he prayed and laid hands on the sick man, and he was healed immediately. News of this spread quickly and soon everyone else who was sick on Malta came to Paul and they were all healed (28:9).

All this leaves us with questions about such signs, miracles and wonders today. Should we expect signs, wonders and miracles today?  One thing is for certain. The book of Acts, at large, leaves us breathless and excited, and we often wished that church was as exciting in our day as it was then. The question is this. Can it be now, as it was then?  The evangelical world is divided on this issue. Some say that signs and wonders of this magnitude were limited to  the apostolic age  and others say  that signs and wonders ought to be the norm today.   The one  view  is called ‘cessationism’, whereas the other  view is known as ‘continuationism’.

Let me give you a very brief synopsis of  how  both positions would argue  their case  before we return to our text  in conclusion.

1.     Signs and Wonders Limited to the Apostolic Age (Cessationism)

This view does not say that miracles don't happen. It just means that they are not normative. The miraculous ministry of Jesus and the apostles was unique. Signs and wonders were not done by Christians in general, but they were the signs of the apostles, and of an apostolic age. When the apostles were gone, this ministry ended. It seems as if    signs and wonders were not the common domain among Christians in general. They were limited  to the special ministry of  Jesus  and the apostles.   Texts which are quoted in support are,  

….With respect to Jesus:  Acts 2:22, "Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him."

…With respect to the  apostles:  
·       Acts 2:43 "Fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles" [not through the Christians in general].
·       Acts 5:12  "Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles" [not by the hands of all the Christians].
·        Acts 14:3, "So they [Paul and Barnabas] remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands."
·        Acts 15:12, "And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles" [and not by other  Christians].

All these texts would indicate that  signs and wonders were done  by Christ and  the apostles, and that in the beginning stages of  the church. These were needed  to authenticate the ministry of Christ, the apostles and the early church.

The proponents  of cessationism  would argue  furthermore that  a text  like 2 Corinthians 12:12 teaches this. Here  Paul is writing to defend his apostleship at Corinth against the claim that  others were the true or greater apostles. He says, "The signs of an apostle were performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works." So again it looks like signs and wonders have had a special role to play in authenticating  the work  of the apostles alone  (cf. Rom. 15:19).

The proponents of cessationism also point out that  in church history there  has never been anyone that we know of that regularly healed people the way Jesus and the apostles did—instantly, completely, and always.  This is quite a strong argument. The 20th century Pentecostal and Charismatic movement which claimed to have revived the ancient apostolic   ministry and practise has failed to convince us that this ministry is indeed normative today. For reasons like these, one group of evangelicals says that signs and wonders ceased as a normative part of the ministry when the apostles finished their work.

2.     Signs and Wonders  continue today (Continuationism)  

This view says that we should see more signs and wonders today than we do.  Continuationists  maintain that sign, wonders and miracles are given both for the blessing of the church and for the spread of the gospel.  This view argues that there seems to be a continuity between Jesus' ministry and the Church's ministry. It was not just limited to the ministry of the apostles.   For instance, in Luke 9:2, when Jesus sent out the twelve, "He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal." And in Luke 10:9 when he sent out the 70, he commanded them, "Whenever you enter a town. . . heal the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near you.'" So it’s not just the apostles, but  also the  seventy!  Furthermore, the preaching of the kingdom seems to be very closely linked with the ministry of healing.  Jesus seems to teach a continuity between his ministry and the ministry of the church. He does not say, "Make healing part of the ministry while I am here, but not after I am gone."

Continuationists furthermore point out that signs and wonders are done  in  the Book of Acts by non-apostles.  Two of the deacons, Stephen and Philip (Acts 6:5) also do signs and wonders as part of their ministry. "Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people." (Acts 6:8). And in Acts 8:6 it says, "And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did."

Continuationists also appeal  to texts like Galatians 3:5:  "Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?" The point is that God is supplying his Spirit to the Galatians now, in the absence of the apostles  and working miracles among them.  So the working of miracles does not seem to be limited to the ministry of the apostles in the early church.

Furthermore the  gifts  of healing and of miracles in 1 Corinthians 12  likewise  seem to indicate  that these were for the church and not just the domain of  the apostles. 

What Shall We Say to These Two Views?

1.     God is sovereign in these matters. The Holy Spirit, the Giver of all gifts is able to give whatever He deems best for the church at any given moment.   God is able to withhold gifts and give gifts when and as He pleases. The list of spiritual gifts in the New Testament is not determinative, but illustrative and always subject to the working of the Holy Spirit, who sovereignly gives gifts at various times  and divers manners and intensities. Pentecostals and charismatics have erred greatly in that they have made the ‘spectacular’ spiritual gifts something  subjective (i.e.  to be asked for subjectively), when in fact the text in 1 Corinthians 12-14  teaches  that the Holy Spirit always gives the gifts sovereignly, and unasked for. The question, "Should we expect signs and wonders  today?" ,   must therefore be linked to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. In our church God has done wonderful  miracles at our asking in prayer. But  we have not  seen miracles done at  will. They always have been wonderful surprises   and occasions for praise and thanksgiving.

2.     We need  to  recognise the  uniqueness of Jesus and the apostles and of that revelatory moment in history that gave us the foundational doctrines of faith and life in the New Testament. As such this time is unrepeatable. 
3.     We have to be careful to make the Bible  say what we want it to say. This rule  must apply  to both continuationists and cessationists. Cessationists will often ignore those texts that continuationists would stress and vice versa.  

4.     Let us never forget that the greatest miracle is not a healing per se, but a soul  redeemed from hell  and eternal death, now living for  the glory of God and the praise of Christ. The greater works in John 14:12 are  in fact not  signs, wonders and miracles per se, but  the wonder and miracle  of conversion.   
  
Finally, in coming back to  Acts 28  we need to recognise that the first two miracles (the miraculous escape from the shipwreck) and the escape of the poisonous viper  were all situational and  all necessary because God wanted  Paul to testify before Caesar in Rome. And so, in that sense we may say again, “We are immortal until our work is done” (George Whitfield, Diary, p.1).  Even the miracles of the healing of  Publius’ father and the many  on the island was ultimately   for the sake of Paul getting to Rome, so that he could complete his work of the gospel there (see  28:10).  All things serve God, and if a healing  or a miracle or a sign will help to that end, then so be it. And it will not be about us. It will be all about Jesus   and His glory.   


[2] The island of Melita ( Mljed) was so heavily infested with the notorious horned viper Vipera ammodytes that a predatory mongoose was introduced on the island in 1910 to control the snake population. The symptoms of a bite by this viper coincide with those reported in the Acts; immediate ‘swelling’ due to hemorrhagic edema, ‘falling down’ due to faintness/dizziness, followed by circulatory shock, pulmonary congestion and internal bleeding, all of which would lead to death if not treated properly.
[3] A Roman name
[4]  John Stott: Acts ,IVP, p. 395